Today in the United Kingdom there are more people aged over 65 in the labour market than ever before. Older people increasingly need to work for financial reasons, and many indeed want to work.
Working longer is part of a long-term social trend. Average retirement ages have been slowly increasing since the early 1990s, and now there are over 1 million people aged 65+ in work. It is becoming more normative to keep working, and the idea of a traditional retirement age is increasingly anachronistic. Moreover, the social benefits of working and the feeling of making a contribution to local communities are highly motivational.
Policy changes, notably the abolition of the default retirement age and the raising of state pension ages, do–one way or another–incentivise people to keep working. Coupled with the ageing workforce, it is essential that the government pursues social policies that help both individuals and employers meet the challenges they are likely to face.
At present there are simply too many gaps in government policy to meet the practical needs of most older workers. There has been some limited action taken to improve access to flexible working (by extending the right to request) and occupational health (the forthcoming Health and Work Advisory Service), but overall efforts have been piecemeal and the effectiveness of new policies is unclear.
One area for focus is tackling the negative stereotypes of older workers. Many of these, for example, that older workers are less productive, are deeply ingrained, and changing attitudes is difficult. Last year Age UK commissioned the University of Essex to carry out a literature review of common perceptions of older workers, which found that there is little or no evidence to bear out the majority of such assumptions.
Age UK believes more engagement with employers across all these issues is crucial. The recent UK government publication Employing Older Workers expects there to be 13.5 million new job vacancies over the next decade, and only 7 million school leavers–helping more older workers stay active is a major part of the solution.
Last but not least, arguably the most important part of the “extending working lives” agenda is how the older workers themselves manage to stay employed. For some, this will never be a problem, but for many others there will be barriers.
Maintaining and updating skills has long been difficult for the over 50s’ cohort. Government funding for training is focused on young people, and while this is of course imperative, in practice this is often done at the expense of older workers. It doesn’t need to be; the two are not mutually exclusive. As working life is extended, allowing older workers equal access to training and making sure people can learn about new technologies as they emerge.
More support for working carers is essential–all too often the challenges are too great and people are forced out of work. Age UK estimates this costs the economy £5.3 billion (US$8.8 billion) a year. Employees need far greater flexibility in order to balance caring responsibilities, and we believe that the government and employers should make all jobs “flexible by default” by the end of the decade, a potentially radical change in attitudes to how jobs are designed and work is viewed.
Those who find themselves out of work have perhaps the toughest challenge of all. Re-entering work past the age of 50 is harder than for any other age group. People in this age group who lose their job face over a decade on lower unemployment benefits before reaching state pension age, placing an additional weight on back-to-work support services–at present these services often fail to provide the needed support. Creating employment opportunities for older jobseekers should be at the top of government agendas.
The issues mentioned so far place the focus on formal employment, but older people’s contributions to the economy and society go much further. They perform unpaid caring and volunteering duties, which add a huge amount to national prosperity, even though it is largely unheralded.
Such contributions are not easily captured in formal measures, but are essential to keep the economy functioning. With the funding crisis and declining role of the state in social care, ever more older people are caring for adults, or are relieving the pressure of high childcare costs, thereby allowing younger generations to go to work. Age UK estimates informal care by people aged 50 or over is worth £28.6 billion.
Older people have a great deal to add, both in formal employment and unpaid additional work. At present this group is an underutilised resource, held back by negative stereotypes and a lack of opportunity, but with the potential to drive the economy forward and make people of all ages better off.
UK Dept for Work and Pensions (2013) Employing Older Workers Employing older workers: an employer’s guide to today’s multi-generational workforce
OECD work on employment
OECD Forum 2014 Issues